12/12/22 By Ancora Health

Artificial intelligence: the future of healthcare

On the road to smart prevention

Artificial intelligence (AI) will play a major role in the future of healthcare. But what does it mean in practice, and where are we at with it today? Read our conversation with Hanno Pijl, Endocrinologist and Professor at Leiden University Medical Center, and Sipko van Dam, Head of Bioinformatics at Ancora Health.

Tags: care prevention, lifestyle, artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data, healthcare system, chronic diseases, lifestyle coaching 

One in six working people in the Netherlands are currently employed in healthcare. The country spends 11.2% of GDP on public health. But with ongoing staff shortages, rising costs and long waiting lists, the system faces a lot of pressure. As Ernst Kuipers, Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport, wrote earlier this year in a letter to the Dutch parliament [1], the Netherlands has little choice but to organize healthcare in a smarter way. “It is unrealistic to assume that the share of healthcare in the Dutch labor market or on public expenditure can increase any further,” he warned. 

There are no quick fixes to the current challenges but artificial intelligence is often mentioned as part of the solution. Research by PricewaterhouseCoopers shows that AI can drive greater efficiency and accessibility in healthcare [2]. According to the study, the costs incurred for obesity, dementia and breast cancer could be cut by more than €170 billion across European healthcare systems through the use of AI for early diagnosis and prevention.  

In this blog, we speak with Hanno Pijl and Sipko van Dam to discuss the value of AI and the outcomes achieved so far. 

Q. What role can AI play in preventive health policy?

Hanno: AI can play an important role to map people’s behaviors and make predictions about their health risks. This allows us to respond to those risks at an early stage.  

Let me share some background. Almost all chronic diseases are caused by the interaction between our genes, our microbiome and our lifestyle. At least seven factors of our lifestyle are important: diet, exercise, whether we smoke, use substances such as alcohol, have chronic stress, how we sleep and which toxins we encounter in our environment. This interaction determines the chance that we will become ill, but how the factors interact with our genetic predisposition and development of the intestinal flora, and with each other, differs from person to person. For example, not everyone who smokes will get lung cancer. But if we smoke, the chance of that happening increases considerably. 

By integrating individual behavioral and biological data, we can use AI to formulate personalized lifestyle advice. In general, the more data we have, the better the predictions and advice become. And that means big benefits for patients. Consider, for example, the use of medicines: by giving people personal lifestyle advice, we can reduce the use of drugs and ensure people fall ill less often, or less severely. We believe 70-80% of all chronic diseases can be avoided through lifestyle change. So it is extremely important that we invest in this. 

Q. Do you believe we are investing enough in AI at the moment?

Hanno: Technology has a lot of potential and we have to ensure that it can develop quickly. In general, we need to invest more. AI is one of the few solutions that can keep healthcare [costs] under control. As a doctor, I work in a system that is ‘on fire’. The best way to tackle this problem is to make sure that fewer people get sick. And that is possible if we leverage technology in a smart way.

Q. You say you can prevent people falling ill. Is that really possible?

Hanno: Yes, it really is! I often hear it said that lifestyle interventions only ‘postpone’ people getting sick. They may age by five or six years, but the care costs eventually come. However, there are increasing indications that this belief is not correct. Lots of chronic illnesses are avoidable. And that saves a large amount on healthcare costs and the burden of disease.

Q. At Ancora Health, what are you doing to leverage AI?

Sipko: In our programs we use data and technology to determine the health risks of each individual, calculating these risks based on international health data sets covering half a million people. After identifying the risks, we translate them into [corrective] actions or preventive measures. With this, we use AI to systematically evaluate our programs to make our advice more effective. Through this ‘hybrid AI’ – blending medical knowledge and artificial intelligence – we are constantly improving our programs.

Q. What success have you achieved so far?

Sipko: We are the furthest along the road with our advice on personal health risks. We equip the participants in our lifestyle programs with an electronic bracelet and a digital weighing scales, and this data feeds into our mobile app. This means we can compare an individual’s data with the [international] patterns and we can predict which disease(s) they are most susceptible to. Through this, we confirm that the patterns we see internationally also apply to the Dutch population.

Q. How do you use AI to translate health risks into actions?

Sipko: The fact that certain behaviors and risks are showing in someone’s data does not mean that there is a causal relationship. Fortunately, we can draw on decades of research done around the world. Based on randomized studies, we know what effect of different [lifestyle] interventions can be expected. We translate those interventions into micro habits, behavioral adjustments with small steps, which are easy for the program participants to pick up on.”

Q. Do you also use AI for lifestyle coaching?

Sipko: “Yes, we monitor and improve our coaching interventions with the help of data. We can see what specific advice is working. For example, if we advise people to exercise more, the data from the electronic bracelet tells us whether they have actually done so.

Q. Where do you expect be with AI in 3-5 years?

Sipko: I would like us to be the first company in the world that can say which lifestyle interventions work best for which people. In five years, we can be the platform everyone looks to for preventive care solutions.”

Q. Why is this work personally important to you?

Sipko: I struggle when I see the people around me becoming unhealthy. People are so much happier when they are in good health. That’s why I believe it’s vital to make preventive health accessible to a wide audience. With the help of timely measures and advanced technology, we can prevent the vast majority of chronic diseases and get more out of our existing healthcare budgets.

Dr. Hanno Pijl is an endocrinologist and professor of diabetology at Leiden University Medical Center and advisor to Ancora Health

Dr. Sipko van Dam is head of bioinformatics at Ancora Health


[1] Letter to Parliament on Progress Integrated Care Agreement https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/documenten/kamerstukken/2022/05/10/kamerbrief-over-voortgang-integraal-zorgakkoord

[2] Artificial intelligence in healthcare https://www.pwc.nl/nl/publicaties/sherlock-in-health.html


Subscribe to our mailing list to be among the first to know about our latest blogs.
Learn how Ancora handles your personal data in our privacy policy